The Irresistible Henry House
By Lisa Grunwald
Random House March 2010
From the library
The Irresistible Henry House is a fascinating hodgepodge of time periods and bizarre American culture. The novel follows Henry, who begins life as a practice house baby. Henry is an orphan and during the first two years of his life, he lives with several young women studying home economics. The people in his life change often with the sole exception of Martha Gaines. She is the house mother, the woman who teaches the students of Wilton College to be mothers in spite of the fact that she herself is childless. When the time comes for Henry to return to the orphanage and be placed with an adoptive family, Martha cannot bear to let him go. Henry and Martha become the only points of permanence in each other’s lives.
Author Lisa Grunwald does a wonderful job covering a lot of ground in this novel. The book begins in the 1940s, during a time when gender roles are firmly established and Martha teaches a mothering philosophy of many rules and minimal coddling. As Henry grows, the reader gets an inside look at the changes that sweep the nation. Martha is forced to deal with the growing popularity of a doctor named Spock whose parenting philosophies are exact opposites of her own. Henry becomes immersed in the culture of the 1960s and 1970s as he experiments with drugs, watches his best friend take part in protests, and cheers on his girlfriend as she is cast in the musical Hair. This is where Grunwald truly excels as a writer – she deftly shows the pain of trying to keep up with a rapidly changing world and falling hopelessly behind.
A large focus of this book is the magic of art, especially the magic created by Walt Disney, As a child, Henry becomes enamored with Disney cartoons and begins to pursue art. He eventually becomes a part of the team creating beloved films like Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book, and Yellow Submarine. This inside look into the inner workings of the animation department of a film studio is fascinating and one you don’t often see in the pages of literature.
Despite a sweeping history of the mid twentieth century, Grunwald’s characters fail to really pull the reader in. Martha is very needy and looks to Henry to fill the emptiness in her life. Obviously, Henry cannot do this as a child and resents Martha for expecting this from him. Henry has a lot of issues because of his bizarre upbringing. He finds it difficult to commit to any one person, since he is used to being passed from one woman to the next. Unfortunately, he is not a particularly likable character. What he needs is obvious to the reader, but seemingly impossible for Henry to ascertain. He lashes out at everyone, including the people who love him most, in ways that seem too extreme even for his circumstances.
The Irresistible Henry House is a sweeping look at the way American culture changed with staggering speed between the 1940s and 1970s. It is the story of a tiny, non-traditional family unable to keep up with a changing world and unable to live up to the impossible expectations of the people who love them. While the characters can be a bit hard to sympathize with, this book is an excellent piece of historical fiction. It’s not to be missed by any reader curious about American culture.